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Full House No Winner for Cine Latino

August 16, 1987|ALAN CITRON | Times Staff Writer

In these days of sticky floors and crowded lines, it is hard to find a clean and friendly place to watch a movie. Walter Chacon, manager of the Cine Latino on Santa Monica's Third Street Mall, says his theater is an exception.

One of the first places he takes a visitor is the bathroom in the corner of a lobby that smells of popcorn and sweet Mexican candies. "See," says Chacon, running his fingers along the pale blue wall near the commode, "it's clean."

Later he proudly pushes open the double doors leading into the theater. On a sultry weekday afternoon, a couple of hundred people are watching the Spanish-dubbed version of "La Bamba," the story of singer Ritchie Valens, in the air-conditioned comfort of the old-fashioned, balconied movie hall.

Chacon said the Cine Latino has never had trouble attracting crowds. As the Westside's only Spanish-language theater, it has become something of an institution--even doubling sometimes as a cultural center and a church. But all that will come to an end on Sept. 7, when the last picture show plays there.

The owners of the building in which Cine Latino is located are pushing the theater out to make way for a retail/residential development that will include an English-language theater complex. The operators of Cine Latino, who have been unable to find a replacement site, say that it may be as long as two years before a new Spanish-language cinema can be built.

"There are very few parcels that are suitable for development of a theater," said Allen Gilbert, director of real estate for Metropolitan Theatres Corp. "We are looking for new sites. But it is not an easy task."

Cine Latino is a victim of the restoration of the Third Street Mall. The outdoor shopping strip that stretches from Broadway to Wilshire Boulevard is receiving a $6-million face-lift designed to transform it into something chic.

Councilman Dennis Zane said that the loss of the Cine Latino is unfortunate. He said that he and other city officials are doing everything possible to quickly locate a new home for the popular movie theater.

Profitable Business

"I personally consider it a high priority to find an alternative location for the Cine Latino in the immediate vicinity of the mall or even on the mall," Zane said. "It is profitable and it does a significant business."

Zane said that the Cine Latino relocation has been frustrating, however. City officials had initially hoped to move it into an existing cinema and even went so far as to inquire whether the Pussycat Theatre, an adult movie complex on 2nd Street, could be moved out to make way for the Cine Latino.

They have since discovered that there are no spots available. Officials say that Metropolitan Theatres Corp., which does not own the building housing Cine Latino, could try to buy a new site on the mall or build something nearby.

"Unfortunately, theaters are unique buildings," said Councilman Alan Katz, who has also been involved in the search for a new Cine Latino. "You can't just find an empty warehouse and say let's make it a theater."

Hideaway for Youths

Cine Latino has enjoyed a monopoly on the Spanish-language film market on the Westside for more than a decade. One employee, Johnny Gonzalez, called the theater with the big red sign a hideaway for Latino youngsters.

Gilbert of Metropolitan Theatres said there is "obviously a market for Spanish-language pictures" in the area. But he said patrons will have to be patient as the operators seek a new site. "It's clearly going to be a loss to the community," he said.

Most members of the community, however, are apparently unaware of the loss. The news of Cine Latino's closing came as a surprise to Antonio Vazquez, executive director of Santa Monica's Latino Resource Organization.

Vazquez said the theater is extremely popular among Latinos because of its location near their Westside homes and its weekly specials.

Talk of Protest

"It is always jampacked," Vazquez said. "Some people make it a habit to go there because there just isn't anything else nearby. Some people are even talking about protesting. But we are just barely getting wind of it."

At the Cine Latino there are no signs warning of the theater's impending demise. Chacon said that he has not given the idea much thought. The 800-seat theater continues to offer its Tuesday night specials. And a billboard inside still lists the coming attractions: "I've Got a Beautiful Goddaughter" and "Big Tramps in Los Angeles."

One gets the feeling that the Cine Latino may just fade away quietly.

"We are feeling sad," said Sonia Trejo, a cashier at the theater. "We know most of the people who come here. Some of them come every day."

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